Where Grey Matter meets Dark Matter

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Episode 5 - 19 January 2009

This week we talk to our very own Sanjeev Veloo about his haunting experience.

Many of us have occasions where we've seen or felt something that just wasn't of this earth. For example, Anthony spent one sleepless night in a rickety old rental house convinced that ghosts were rifling through his fridge. But it's not that common for a houseful of people to become completely convinced that a malevolent spirit has taken up residence, and that they had better get the 'hell' out of there, or just move.

However, our most excellent music guy, Sanjeev Veloo had exactly that - he and his two housemates felt that all the signs pointed to an evil haunting. Over the first few months of living in the apartment, Sanjeev noticed a few odd sounds and feelings, but didn't worry too much about it, until the others admitted that they were having strange experiences. Then things started to get worse. Doors were opening by themselves, knocking and scratching sounds became common, a dank and stale atmosphere descended on one of the bedrooms and, most disturbing of all, they started to be affected physically. Several times, the housemates, and some visitors felt something pressing down on them, draining their energy, or even stealing their bedsheets.

Finally reaching the end of their tolerance for the malodorous malefactor, they resolved to move out - and that's where the Cosmic Crew came into the picture. San offered us the keys for a night, and so we headed over there with cameras, microphones, a case of dutch courage and a carefree attitude towards death.

We could not begin to recount the tales of crippling terror and dashing heroism in the face of the forces of the afterlife that flow from that night - since none of them actually happened. In fact, not much happened at all. But we did a lot of investigating, to see if we could identify where the troubles might be coming from.

1. Noises: The housemates reported hearing knocking and banging all around the apartment and knocking and scratching at the windows. We noticed that apartment is directly above the garage of the block, and there were several pipes and tubes running along the garage ceiling (ie. directly underneath their floor). We proceeded to bang on these with abandon and noticed that they made a hell of a racket. Also, the fridge made an irregular tapping sound that varied in volume. At times, this sounded exactly like someone tapping on the wall. We didn't find anything to explain the sound on the window. We recorded ambient sounds for most of the night, but nothing was very obvious. That was until we meddled with some settings, to extract the demonic sounds that were really there. (Keep in mind that these recordings have been amplified a great deal, and sometimes slowed down.)

2. Dark shapes: At one point, a dark shape was noticed hovering in the lounge. It turns out that the lighting in the lounge was very dim, even with about 20 recessed lights in the ceiling. The large number of lightbulbs most likely contributed to the regularity with which new bulbs needed to be bought. Also, the blinds were partially transparent, resulting in a strange mix of the outside streetlights and inside reflections.

3. The dank bedroom: The three of us could definitely sense what the housemates were talking about in this room - it was warmer than the rest of the house and the air was dense and cloying. The bedroom was not large, and the person who stayed in it was quite a heavy incense user. There was a computer and a large lamp that was constantly left on. And, it might also be said that the resident had a unique personal odour.

4. Doors opening: We had two specific reports - (i) the sliding cupboard door in the dank bedroom would open partway by itself; and (ii) the sliding door between another bedroom and the backyard was opened one night, while the occupant was asleep. For (i), we noticed that the runner for the door was bent, and if we closed it, occasionally, it would slide open a little way on its own. For (ii), we couldn't see anything to explain how the door could have opened, but we do know that people sometimes sleepwalk...

5. Physical interference: Nothing happened to us while we were there - our bedclothes remained inviolate - so there's not much we can say about this.

6. Photos: We took a lot of photos and carfeully inspected them all. There was only a couple of things that showed up, one of which was a creepy face in the blinds. Actually, the face was formed by some dimples in the blind. [Definition: pareidolia n., Perceiving order in a random pattern. See the Skeptics Dictionary for a good description.] In an attempt to create artifacts, we made sure the camera strap and other reflective things were in shot. We also fiddled with various filters and levels afterwards to really try to convince the ghost to show him/her/itself. Have a look at the results.

  • The face in the blinds (and a closeup).
  • Here's a sequence of shots showing someone (or something) keeping its eyes on us: 1 2 3 4 5.
  • The bent runner on the errant sliding door.
  • A ghost rod, aka the camera strap.
  • A frightening intrusion by the netherworld - caused by a silver heaphone connector held in front of the flash. Note the real greeny-blue ghost in the bottom left corner, or maybe it's just an artifact.

So, by sunrise the following day, we knew we had survived the ordeal, and we think we have a good idea of what caused some of the problems. We think that a large part of the problem came about when they started telling their own stories to each other, and it started a spiral of fear and confirmation bias. There is also the added complexity that all three came from cultures that are steeped in mysticism and spiritual beliefs - Sanjeev freely admits that ghost sightings are par for the course in his native Singapore.

But in the final analysis, we can't say definitively that the apartment isn't haunted. In the interests of the scientific viewpoint, all we can say is that nothing unusual happened to us. Perhaps the ghost had taken up exorcise.

BETA: Over the past, say, few billion years, the earth's magnetic field has frequently weakened, disappeared and even reversed itself, so north was south and nobody knew which way to go on holidays. And this will probably happen again. Cue The Core. Civilisation is facing its worst threat eva! The outer core is slowing down - but who cares, right? Well the rotating iron down there is what generates the magnetic field (the magnetosphere) which (apparently) protects us from deadly microwaves that come from the sun, and without it, the earth would be fried like so much burned peach (see the movie for the origin of this expression). But, the magnetosphere does little to stop microwaves. Microwaves, being just another form of light, have no electric or magnetic charge, and magnetic fields have no effect on things that are uncharged.

But that's not to say that we don't need this giant magnet; there are lots of high energy charged particles coming from the sun and from the bigger cosmos, intent on doing us and our technology grievous harm. In fact, some doomsayers (read: scientists) predict that if our magnetic field weakens much further, most satellites and earth-based communications will be temporarily, or even permanently, useless.

At any rate, the core is stopping and our heroes need to get it started again. The solution: nuclear weapons. What can't they do? If a big enough explosion could be deployed in the right spot, then we can get this big sucker going again - and blow some serious shit up along the way. But getting down to the earth's core is no sunday afternoon stroll, unless that stroll involves swimming through several thousand kilometers of molten rock that would melt and crush any material on earth. But that just means we need to find a lone scientist in the desert who has solved all our problems in his spare time, just in case this ever happened. The ship he built is made from an alloy/element/metal called unobtainium (get it?). This is a word that has been around for a long time, scientists would use it to describe a fictitious material with all the properties they needed, or just something that was damn rare and expensive to get hold of. I think, for this movie, it probably fits into the former category.

So they build a ship from this unobtainium, put some lasers and sonic blasters on the front, load it with some nukes and a crew of stooges, and then dump it all in the ocean. Well, the ship works and they start burrowing their way downwards. Along the way they encounter giant diamonds and a giant geode, a cavity with quartz crystals around the outside edge. But the amethysts in the monstrous cavity probably wouldn't form in the mantle. As you bring a rock from the core to the surface, quartz is the last mineral to crystallise, ie. only really close to the surface at very low temperatures and pressures.

Crystal Caves, Atherton, QLD - link

Eventually they get to the outer core and they're preparing to drop nukes then hightail it out of there - until they realise that the density of the core is not what they thought it was. This is bad, because waves tend to attenuate (die off) quicker in less dense material, so the nukes they brought won't be big enough to get things moving again if they drop them all in one big bunch. But a knowledge of wave superposition comes to the rescue. Think of a pool: when one wave is moving around, the surface will rise and fall according to that wave. However, with two waves rocking around in the same area, the surface height will be the heights of both waves added together. Now since waves go both up and down, most of the time the height of the water will be about the same as with a single wave. But if the two waves happen to be at their own high points at the same time, then the water height is double that for a single wave. In the case of our heroes, if they can place the nukes so that all the waves will reach their peak at the same time, then they get a strong wave that travels a long way. For this to work you need to place your next nuke some number of wavelengths away from the source, timed to explode exactly when the wave passes by. This may be possible since the wavelengths are range from about 10km upwards, so you have a bit of room for error (see Stein, Seth & Wysession, Michael (2003) An introduction to seismology, earthquakes and earth structure, Blackwell).

Having saved the world, they now need to save themselves, so they head 'up'. Luckily, they manage to find a continental fault line to the surface, which makes their journey that much simpler. Of course, having travelled thousands of kms underground, all over the earth, it makes perfect sense, in an American film, to come back to the surface right near Hawaii - which isn't anywhere near a continental fault.

But one thing the movie did get right is how scientists act and work together. One example: the boffins are sitting around a bank of readouts which show rapidly changing numbers. At one point, they all nod in agreement, without anything seeming to have changed. And that's how it is - when you make measurements there are no alarms that go off, there are no pretty graphics or flashing lights. A lot of films would have had something obvious happen, just so that the audience knows that it's now time for head-nodding. Kudos for that.

The movie was widely laughed at in scientific circles, but look here to read the calm response of the screenwriter.

Here's some of the real deal about how the core works:

The deeper you go into the Earth, the more iron and nickel you'll find. And it's hot down there due to the intense pressure at these depths, and the presence of radioactive elements - so these metal rocks are liquid. Because it's hotter at the bottom and cooler at the top - what do you get???? Convection - like what happens in a kettle (but in super-slow motion), dragging the warmer liquid rocks towards the surface, and pulling the cooler shallower rocks into the depths. It's this convection that drives plate tectonics - which cause the landmasses to shift around (like disputed arctic ridges), volcanoes to spew, and earthquakes to shake the Japanese.

So we've got this liquid metal moving around, up and down, but it also moves because the core is rotating faster than the uppermost layers. The thin crust of the Earth, the one we drive around on and dig down into for buried treasure is hard; and the innermost core is hard. But the layers in between are more or less liquid. Therefore, the core and the upper layers are rotating at different speeds, with the core spinning faster than the crust. Because of this difference, the squishy bits of the outer core move in big circles parallel to the plane of the equator as well as towards/away from the core due to convection. In general, moving charges create a magnetic field, and the rotating hot iron in the mantle and core cause the magnetic field to tend in a roughly north-south orientation.

Because there are two causes of these rock movements, if the core "stops spinning" like in the movie, there will still be convection due to the heat - and the guts of the planet won't cool for a long, long time.

Magnetosphere Reversals:
Magnetic field reversals are a real mystery! A strange phenomenon which occurs naturally every few hundred thousand years or so. The Core leaves the impression that the movie was designed to re-enact what would happen when this event occurs, not "when the core stops spinning" - that doesn't make any sense on the timescales the movie describes.

You can see it in rocks from the sea-floor which have a rad mineral in them called "magnetite" - it acts like a compass. In fact, magnetite is compasses! As lava comes to the surface, the magnetite cools and locks in place. The geological record shows that the poles do wander a lot and actually flip.

The last time a magnetic field reversal occurred was about 780,000 years ago. But they are very erratic and the mechanisms behind it are largely unknown - the average is ~250,000 years. Coming up to these reversals, the magnetic field weakens. This might cause a bit of a problem, but it (most likely) happens over a period of hundreds or thousands of years. In other words, we'll (probably) see it coming. [Although some people think it can happen a little faster: Coe, R.S., Prevot, M. & Camps, P. (2002), "New evidence for extraordinarily rapid change of the geomagnetic field during a reversal", Nature, 374, p p. 687-692.]

How much does life on Earth need the magnetic field? Well without it, we would probably be screwed.

But how about if one of these reversals happened? Near the start of the movie, the pigeons go berserk...but would this happen? Why?
As it turns out, some birds and insect species have a strange sixth sense (but not the kind that let's you see dead people). They have a compass in their head! It's called magnetoreception. Little chunks of that wondrous mineral magnetite that line up with the Earth's magnetic field and helps point them in the right direction [try this article: Ritz, T., Adem, S. & Schulten, K. (2000), "A model for photoreceptor -based magnetoreception in birds", Biophysical Journal, Vol 78, Issue 2, pp 707-718]. There has been some work that shown that humans may also use magnetite in our heads to help guide the way [see here]. It's no wonder that Chris is always late for work when he sleeps on his magnet-therapy pillow - he'll say he got lost.

An interesting aspect of this type of perception is that the time-scale between reversals (~250,000 years on average) wouldn't allow for much evolution of this sense. But it seems fairly important since it appears to have arisen separately in many different groups - like eyes!

It would be very interesting if it were found that species that rely on magnetoreception tended to die off at these magnetic reversals, or at least drop in abundance. This would keep it from becoming a dominant sense like eyes for humans or smell for dogs. Although, there hasn't been any reliable correlations of extinctions with these magnetic reversals.yet.

But unlike in The Core, there probably wouldn't be kamikaze pigeons (or pigeons that turn into rocks like the car-denting, window-smashing birdies in the movie). It would only drive them bananas if they were using this magnetoreception as their primary way of getting around - but they've still got eyes.

Perhaps if the poles didn't reverse so regularly, we'd all know our way around pretty well, not just men.

Some miscellania:

  • "File Status: On it's way" - On it is way? What does that mean?
  • "Error 404 - Access Denied" - 404 is a file not found error.
  • Imperial measurements? Get real. Use them and you crash into Mars.
  • The weedy computer genius at one point used the wondrous technology called the Boss Key (a magical key that takes you to something resembling work when the boss walks past), except they did it in reverse!



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